Two records

Dot writes:

over the last few months of listening, two records have been my favourites, and if I spin it right (see what I did there) I can present them as representing almost opposite strategies for how to be a musician.

One is meditative, intricate, makes use of mostly traditional orchestral instruments, has no vocal lines unless you count birdsong, responds to traditional crafts, remote places and the natural world, and comes upon you gently; it’s a record to think with, to be alone with, to drive through the rain with (as I have); and I realise I don’t actually know what the artist behind it looks like, which is appropriate given the project is called Hidden Orchestra. The album is the exquisite Dawn Chorus.

The other is brash and loud, draws on a garish mix of genres but most prominently on rock and EDM, has songs about drugs, vacuous self-help, twisted internet obsessions and cowboys finding friendship, veers from the utterly bleak to the camply hilarious, is ugly in places and cliche’d in places and full of catchy tunes, and is made by an artist who dresses like he’s in a different Sacha Baron Cohen film every week, when not actually naked. (Or wearing – brace yourself if you plan to click the link – these very memorable underpants.) Also, he’s pissing on his own face on the cover. It’s amazing I like it, but I do, very much. (Not the pissing part, but those truly are memorable underpants.) In this case I’m talking about Kirin J. Callinan and Bravado.

What do these records have in common, apart from that I like them? Collaboration, for one. Hidden Orchestra combines field recordings, especially of dawn in various places, with instrumental performances, all brought together by the magic of a laptop; one of the performers is Tomáš Dvořák, the clarinettist and composer responsible (as Floex) for the Machinarium and Samorost soundtracks. Kirin J. Callinan I discovered through his collaboration with Alex Cameron, another singer who likes to inhabit different characters, though without experimenting so recklessly with his trousers. Here’s the collaboration. It should win Eurovision and bring about world peace.

Another connection is that they both repay repeat listening. With Hidden Orchestra perhaps this is obvious: some of the tracks are quite long; they’re richly textured; the way the field recordings blends into and works with the instrumental music is worth thought. (I found myself thinking about how the birdsong somehow starts to seem melancholy in conjunction with the human music – for its innocence, for the damage we might do it, for the consciousness of fragility and loss that we bring to this sound that is so much more ancient than we are, for how we strain to connect with the natural world around us). But with Kirin J. Callinan too I find there’s a lot of substance behind the brashness. As I keep listening, the funny tracks don’t stop being funny, and the difficult or initially ugly tracks (thinking here especially of “Down 2 Hang”) turn out to have powerful stories to tell and music that helps to tell it. And his lyric writing is remarkably good, as witness this bonkers piece of rhyming from “Song About Drugs”: “wrapped up in plastic, thrown down the stairs / feeling fantastic…” But approach his Instagram account with caution.

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The Basics, “In the Rude!”

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At the start of The Basics’ new live album you hear Wally De Backer say “This’ll be a little different”. Happily it’s a complete lie. They’re as much fun as ever. Though there are some songs on here I don’t think they’ve played live very often, for a fan of the band it’s very much a convivial evening with old friends. For a non-fan of the band – well, that’s a mindset I don’t have much insight into…

The album is released to celebrate the band’s fifteenth anniversary and was recorded at The Howler, Brunswick, on 27th December 2016, one of only a couple of gigs they did that year. Their first live album, /ðə’bæzɪtʃ/, was an exercise in “bringing the studio into the live show”; it has all the bells and whistles, including keyboardist and horn section, and came after a period of intensive touring. (They’ve also done a concert DVD/CD, released in 2013.) In contrast, In the Rude! is an unpolished reunion gig, but it’s loveable in its dodgy moments – and there are some, and not just the one the band loudly point out to each other near the end (e.g. what’s happened to the bottom of the chord at 1:22 of “Memory Lane”?). It’s warm and human, and beside the rougher sounds there’s not only rock’n’roll energy but tenderness. At the end of “To Think of You”, a quiet, poignant song, you can hear the hush before the crowd break the spell to applaud; and listening to the album you get a little piece of that special moment.

Some highlights: one of the pleasures of live albums is being given a different angle on tracks that maybe stood out less in the studio albums. Here “Bitten By the Same Bug” emerges as a really engaging combination of tongue-in-cheek ska plaintiveness (in the verse) and rollicking rock (in the chorus). There’s a flash new video to accompany this version.

It’s well paired with “Time Poor”, which is funny, shouty, and clearly a blast live. It’s great to hear “With This Ship”, here sounding darker and leaner than it does on Keep Your Friends Close, and “I Could Go On”, the opener from their first album, Get Back. The best track of all, for me, is the performance of “Home Again” in the encore. It’s an audience request and Kris reveals they haven’t rehearsed it, “but give us a second and we’ll do it really well”. And it has a tentative quality, especially at first, but it’s a song about homesickness and what-ifs, and the delicate approach – the way it softly assembles from sketches of its former parts – really suits it. Plus Wally’s singing is beautiful. He has the lion’s share of lead vocals on the record and they range all the way from gentle and reflective, as here, to the style he once elegantly described as “screaming my nuts off”. He’s certainly prepared to put everything on the line for music.

The CD is available in two different packages, both with photographs by Barry C. Douglas, who also made the videos for “Bitten By the Same Bug” and “With This Ship”. I love Barry’s photos: he takes honest, unglamorous and yet beautiful shots and they perfectly complement the immediacy of the music. In The Rude! is the sound of three men having fun, playing some stonkingly good songs, taking the piss out of each other, making themselves vulnerable, and connecting with their audience. And I’m enjoying it very much.

On sale from Waterfront.

Jean-Jacques Perrey et son ondioline

Dot writes:

sometimes a niche collector’s item can also be a lovely thing in and of itself. This is true of Jean-Jacques Perrey et son ondioline, the first release from the new Forgotten Futures record label set up by Wally De Backer (Gotye).

Perrey was a pioneering electronic artist, the sole virtuoso of the early vacuum-tube-based synthesiser, the ondioline, and in the 1960s one of the first users of the Moog. The music for which he is best known is often comical and boisterous and frequently makes use of tape loops of animal noises and other odd sounds. In albums such as The In Sound From Way Out! (1966, with Gershon Kingsley) and Moog Indigo (1970), he presented both catchy melodies of his own and cheeky reinventions of older material, such as the updated version of the Cygnets’ Dance from Swan Lake on In Sound… and, on Moog Indigo, a recording of ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ using samples of real bees.

The A-side of Jean-Jacques Perrey et son ondioline collects rarities, many previously unreleased, from the early part of his career, when he was often not playing his own compositions but contributing his skill on the ondioline to the work of others. Having recently read Dana Countryman’s biography of Perrey, Passport to the Future, I get the sense this album could be the answer to a Perrey fan’s wish list: many of these pieces of music are mentioned in it as episodes in Perrey’s colourful story. Here is ‘L’âme des poètes’ from 1951, on which he and his ondioline supplied Charles Trenet’s wish for ‘the sound of a soul’ (Countryman, p. 25); here is the theme from Dandelion Wine, the 1967 musical based on the novel by Ray Bradbury for which, again, Jean-Jacques played ondioline (the composer was Billy Goldenburg: Countryman, pp. 126-7). However, despite the range of dates and composers, and despite the obscurity of some of the tracks – dug up from personal archives, often painstakingly restored from acetates – the resulting album is far more than a collection of curiosities. All the tracks are engaging, some are truly beautiful, and they are skilfully sequenced to present a cohesive progression of tone and mood. In contrast to Perrey’s better known albums, that mood is often one of wistful sweetness.

L’âme des poètes’ quickly became my main earworm from the album. I was struck by how the ondioline in it doesn’t sound so much like a violin as a very early recording of a violin. I wonder if it already sounded that way in 1951? Because this is a song about how the echoes of art linger sweetly through time, and that nostalgic sound seems immensely appropriate. Of course now the song itself, in its style and the smoky recording, is deeply nostalgic and evocative of mid-century France (a context known to me chiefly through film and through shorthand signals such as this type of music). Layers upon layers of gentle longing and memory.

Next but one before ‘L’âme des poètes’ in the running order, ‘Danielle of Amsterdam’ sounds like the theme song for a 1970s sitcom (it was actually the theme from a film), narrowly holding onto its dignity; following it, ‘Cigale’ has more poise, of an old-fashioned, ballroom-dancing kind: purple rinses on holiday in Blackpool. ‘Chicken on the Rocks’ is irresistibly exuberant and funny, as is ‘Barnyard in Orbit’ (a different version to the one on In Sound From Way Out!, with, according to De Backer, a sprightlier performance; I also notice a different style of stereo mix with less hard panning to left or right). ‘Visa to the Stars’ and ‘Pioneers of the Stars’, the second and last tracks on the A-side, both have a brave quality with galloping guitar lines evocative of westerns. ‘La Vache et le Prisonnier’ and ‘Dandelion Wine’ are both fragile, yearning melodies. ‘Sérénade à la Mule’ is cautiously jaunty. ‘Mars Reflector’ is sustained more by sparse texture and disjointed angles of sound than by melody and effectively portrays the floating strangeness of outer space.

The second side of the record is taken up with a demonstration disc of the ondioline, restored from the single known copy. Perrey takes us through some of the sonic possibilities of the instrument and it’s a fascinating insight into its huge range of tones, as well as a chance to hear his voice speaking out of the past. If only we could see exactly what he was doing with the controls. The slider marked ‘D’ seems to be popular.

All of this comes in a physically beautiful and (joy of joys) richly informative package. The booklet offers a wealth of photographs, an introductory essay by Simon Reynolds, and notes on each track by De Backer. The essay outlines Perrey’s early career and positions him as an electronic pioneer concerned not so much with ‘alien zones of sound’ but with connecting new technologies back to human emotions; we’re given a small thesaurus of terms to alert us to what Perrey offers: ‘humour, romantic yearning, wistful nostalgia, insouciance, and frivolity’. The track notes burst with enthusiasm but also with detail. One has a sense of the patient work that has gone into all this – the exploration of boxes and artefacts, the labours of engineers – and of the tempting wealth of further material waiting to be quarried.

Wally De Backer has been promoting Jean-Jacques Perrey’s music with performances (at National Sawdust in Brooklyn in November 2016 and at Moogfest on 18th May), radio appearances (2nd November and 16th November), and a Spotify playlist. His Facebook post about Jean-Jacques Perrey et son ondioline is worth a read. From his remarks at Moogfest, it seems another Forgotten Futures release, a reissue of Perrey’s album of sleep music, Prélude au sommeil, is almost ready to go.

How to Get a Hit Record in 1985

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Dot writes:

How to Get a Hit Record: Things You Should Know About the Pop Music Business, by Ray Hammond (Poole: Javelin Books, 1985) ISBN 0 7137 1498 0

If you want a hit record in 1985, you should know that it is all about the money. You should expect to be cheated, fleeced, exploited, and charged for the hamburgers the crew bought three years ago. You should get a clever lawyer who will make your contract just exploitative enough for the record company to accept it while still leaving you enough for a washing machine at the end of five years.

If you want a hit record in 1985, you must have the right image, which is original but exactly on-trend but not too outrageous but handsome but not effeminate but not too sexual, especially if there is a woman in your band. Consider having plastic surgery on your nose but realize you cannot be objective about it. Maybe it is your best feature after all.

If you want a hit record in 1985, you have to be in London. Sleep in your car if necessary. If you formed anywhere smaller than Glasgow there are unlikely to be more than two talented people in your band. Dump the others.

If you want a hit record in 1985, you may need to stamp on your best friend’s face. With luck, this will only be a metaphor for sacking him.

If you want a hit record in 1985, it goes without saying your best friend is a man. Only men are musicians, or producers, or managers, or promoters, or salesmen, or DJs, or critics, or label executives. Women may appear occasionally in brackets as an alternative. Otherwise there is a girl you might pick up after a gig, whose opinion of your single you should ask (if you remember), since her friends might buy it. Managers hate it when a musician falls in love with an intelligent woman as she might be bored while he’s away on tour and uncover some of the ways in which the manager is ripping the band off.

If you want a hit record in 1985, put all the good ideas you’ve ever had in the first 30 seconds of your demo, as it is the only part that will be listened to. Remember most people in the music business hate most of the music they hear.

If you want a hit record in 1985, find a producer who makes hits that are bought by teenagers of fourteen to nineteen. Virtually all singles are bought by teenagers of fourteen to nineteen, and virtually all successful records are produced by Trevor Horne. And a few other blokes who are helpfully listed on p. 112.

If you want a hit record in 1985, some members of the band may not be allowed to play on it. Also the producer will probably do all the mixing without you. Suck it up as you want a hit very much. Simultaneously remember that this is your record and your creative input is very important.

If you want a hit record in 1985, the most important thing is promotion. Hopefully by making the record company pay you a huge advance you will have forced them to do lots of this. Promotion chiefly means smoke and mirrors deployed in record shops, plus supplying DJs with cocaine. Adverts do not reach the target market but make the rest of the music industry think you are worth talking about. If you play on daytime TV ask to mime.

If you want a hit record in 1985, you must recognize the desperate state of the industry in which sales are falling and new technologies (such as taping from the radio) have irreparably damaged the old business models. Understand that long careers are no longer possible and you are boarding a sinking ship. But do not despair, and do not be cynical! For music is a beautiful thing. Anyway, just think what it will be like in thirty-one years’ time.

Yet another list of the top ten albums of 2016

Dot writes: what is the reason for Best Albums of 20xx posts? Sometimes I think it’s to make me feel small. I looked at the list on The Quietus, which is a dead trendy website for cool persons, and even though their list is 100 albums long I think I’d only even heard of 15 of them – and that’s heard of, not heard. I couldn’t help feeling darkly, and, I hope, unfairly, that they were showing off.

Anyway, here is my list. There were a lot of Important Records this year that I didn’t get round to, but here are ten that have given me joy this year, and maybe you’d like them too. I’m not showing off. Honest.

10. Shura, Nothing’s Real

Slick eighties-style production, catchy melodies, but lyrics that talk about vulnerability and awkwardness. And she’s incredibly loveable.

9. Christine and the Queens, Chaleur Humaine

Elegant gender-bending pop.

8. Beacon, Escapements

I bought this subtle electronic album early in the year and have found myself repeatedly going back to it.

7. Case/lang/veirs, case/lang/veirs

I’ve only just bought this as I heard about it through the end-of-year list in The Guardian. This illustrates the positive aspect of end-of-year lists. A female folk-rock supergroup, the brainchild of k.d.lang, now on heavy rotation in my kitchen, which is a far more sweet and soulful place as a result.

6. William Crighton, William Crighton

Australian country rock, tough, bitter and tuneful.

5. Bell X1, Arms

Bell X1 write witty lyrics with a political punch – “Let’s ask what the markets would do / Cos markets have feelings too”, the second track starts – but they also offer melodies that hook you in and moments of melancholy romance, as in the gorgeous animated clip below.

4. Braille Face, Kōya

Electronic production and oblique lyrics come together in a beautifully atmospheric album. Listening to Tim Shiel’s podcasts about the Spirit Level label has made me feel involved in Braille Face’s journey into the spotlight, and I’ve found Kōya and the treasury of songs from which it was selected productive sources of ideas for my writing, but when it comes down to it the album is just good, and would be good without any of this other stuff.

3. J.Views, 401 Days

This is another album with an involving story. It was fascinating to hear and learn about the songs as they were written, through the DNA website. The final product is unashamedly sensuous, richly textured and enchanting. All the nice adjectives.

2. Beyoncé, Lemonade

I never thought I liked Beyoncé, but it turns out I do. Such a varied and powerful record.

1. Radiohead, A Moon-Shaped Pool

I wasn’t sure whether to put this or Lemonade at number one, but I think in the end I have to stick with my rock roots. It’s an album full of feeling but without a hint of easy sentiment.

Plus honourable mentions for:

Floex, Samorost 3 soundtrack

I fell hard for Floex this year, but for his oeuvre as a whole rather than for this soundtrack album specifically, which is why I’ve left it out of the top ten list. If I made a list of favourite tracks there would be several from Samorost 3 on it.

Chairlift, Moth

Arthur Beatrice, Keeping the Peace

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Ears

All Tvvins, IIVV

Bat for Lashes, The Bride

Colour Bomb, Colour Bomb

 

 

 

 

Backwards

[Braille Face effort no. 12, based on Jot. The last of the set]

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Let’s go backwards. Let’s rewind.

Ten. We’re in the ruins of Babel and your loyalty is my hate-speech and my sublime music is your god-awful satanic racket. I’ve taken the books. You’ve got the house. I sit under the cliff, by the great black wall, and listen to the scream of gulls.

Nine. Here are medications for the cruelty of the world: Xanax, Prozac, Facebook, kittens, knitting, strategic deafness, reality television. We are sealed to our separate devices.

Eight. You’re away a lot now. I say “mm” when you talk and wish you didn’t snore. There’s a fear in my gut I don’t tell you about.

Seven. On holiday we carefully study the phrasebook and memories from past lessons come back to us. We tentatively join hands with a strange place, a brief touch, and are warmed.

Six. The words and the music are one and fit us perfectly. The celestial spheres revolve.

Five. Music teaches a love looking for names. An aching in the chest, blood quickening, a sense of all the space in which you might be waiting.

Four. You throw your shoes over the power line and walk home barefoot. They dangle there, cheerfully unexplained.

Three. As a child I write words in the sand on the beach for the waves to remember.

Two. I learn jokes. Knock knock. Who’s there? Me! And a big hug.

One. The mouth speaks to the milk and the fist to the air, flailing. We have to learn object relations. The world emerges: mama, tree, mine, again.

Zero. Heartbeat and darkness.

Hold me.

Three marches

[Braille Face flash fiction no. 11. I think this story really wants to be longer: this is the skeleton of it. It’s based on Moiety and especially the track ‘Political Monsters’.]

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He first met Jenny at the protest against the Criminal Justice Bill in June 1994. He was eighteen years old, about to go to university (Warwick, History), and he and some mates went up to London because they’d heard The Manic Street Preachers would be playing and also, secretly, because they were hoping to witness a riot. They didn’t witness a riot. They almost missed the protest altogether because they didn’t know London and weren’t sure where to go. It was Jenny who set them right as they walked in the wrong direction with their droopy cardboard KILL THE BILL sign. She wore purple doc martins and a tie-dye dress. He got talking to her as she guided them to Trafalgar Square, or, rather, she got talking to him. She must have liked him because he went home with her address on a slip of paper in his pocket.

They exchanged letters and, when they got to university, emails. She educated him. The world weighed on her: Tibet, the rainforests, Bosnia, underprivileged youth. She was reading Law and Anthropology at LSE. He had always been a kings and battles kind of person, but he grew interested in social history. He joined Young Labour. He and Jenny became a couple: he visited her in London and made love to her nervously in her student room, wanting to please her and unsure how to do so. After a while they split up.

 

In 2003 he was writing a PhD on social mobility in fifteenth-century Warwickshire and he got an email from Jenny: she was organizing a big group to join the march against war in Iraq. He’d been uncertain of his views on the issue, but he wanted to see her again. On a chilly February day he walked beside her in the largest crowd he had ever known. She wore a black coat and red lipstick. She had a training contract with a big legal firm, but planned to go into charity law. He felt provincial and addled with libraries. She was alight with anger at the arrogance of Bush and Blair. He rode the wonderful wave of her conviction all the way to Hyde Park. Afterwards he went back to Warwick and his manor court rolls, and wanted to email her, and didn’t think she would be interested.

In the years that followed he thought of her often. Teaching, he imagined her as an observer in the corner, and tried to show her why history was important, or at least how it was humane. He reminded himself sometimes that he was charged with the shaping of young minds, though they didn’t always seem that malleable. He was teaching about contingency, about the complexity of causes, about the mattering of minor lives; he was trying to get his students to pay proper attention. He did admin. He made submissions to the Research Assessment Exercise. He had girlfriends but did not marry.

 

In 2015 he went on a march entirely by himself. It was the anti-austerity march of 20th June. He had made a cardboard sign, which he carried self-consciously: CUTS KILL. He was thin-skinned to the crowd, a little emotional. It was unlike him to do this, but he finally felt that he had to; everything he’d once taken for granted had eroded so far.

And by chance he saw Jenny. Somehow in the mass of people they encountered each other. She looked tired and plump now, but so, he knew, did he. They fell into step and exchanged the summaries of their lives. Hers was not as he expected: a daughter, a divorce, an illness, and now she was running a community centre, struggling for funding.

“It’s wonderful to see you again,” she said. “Remember the Criminal Justice Bill march? They passed that bill, of course. Sometimes I think we only march so we’ll feel better when the government goes ahead and ignores us.”

“Ah, but think of the chartists,” he said. “They didn’t get what they wanted in the short term, but it came good in the end. Think of the suffragettes.” He couldn’t help also thinking of the Luddites, the Britons petitioning Rome for protection against the Picts and Scots, and the Pilgrimage of Grace. Sometimes terms were very long.

“You must come and see me,” she said, “for old times’ sake. And maybe some new times too.” And he went home that day with her number in his phone.